Superheroes and Referendums in Quebec and Scotland

The role of nationalist heroes in everyday culture in anticipation of political change

Contributed by Harriet Kennedy PhD Student in Canadian Studies at University of Edinburgh
January 09, 2014
Harriet Kennedy's picture

In his 2013 book Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero Jason Dittmer said of the national superhero that they are a “discourse through which the world becomes understandable”[1]. In the cases of Scotland and Quebec this is certainly of relevance when discussing the ways in which comics creators responded to the independence campaigns, particularly the announcement of  future referendums on sovereignty.

As Scotland stands on the brink of its upcoming referendum on independence it seems like it might be the ideal moment for a Captain Scotland to stride forth and in October of 2013 Saltire was published. Similarly in Quebec in the 1970s and 1990s as the Canadian province awaited its 1980 and 1995 referendums on sovereignty, readers of Quebecois Bande Dessinee (BDQ) saw the arrival of figures such as Capitaine Kebec, Angloman and Bojoual L’Huron Kebekois.

There are often comparisons drawn between Quebec and Scotland not only politically but also in terms of the cultures of the two places and their independence movements. Sovereignists in Quebec are watching nervously as Scotland approaches its referendum; many of them convinced that a pro-independence vote in Scotland could only result in a renewed enthusiasm for independence within the Canadian province. Residents of both nations have drawn parallels between the ways in which the United Kingdom and Canada have affected the culture and language of both sub state nations as well as the political standing of each.

Bearing this in mind and as a Québéciste living and working in Scotland I have spent the last year or so intrigued as to whether Scotland’s thriving comic book culture would produce a national superhero prior to the referendum. With the launch of Saltire in recent months it has finally happened.

Saltire's creator John Ferguson describes him as “an immortal being created thousands of years ago to protect Scotland and its people. He’s big, he’s blue and he’s ginger”[2]. Just in case that didn’t sell it to you he concludes by saying “He has Scottish values but he’s a traditional comic book superhero with a variety of super villains to contend with as the story progresses, a Scottish competitor to Batman and Spiderman if you like”[3].

Saltire’s first two issues were released as a collected volume in October of 2013 and these first two comics go some way towards introducing the characters and setting up the dynamics of the universe in which he exists. Saltire’s origins lie in the “mists of time, before the bards brought history to the clans” and he is born thanks to the head of each clan sacrificing themselves for the good of their country. Saltire carries with him the so-called primordial blades, which are indestructible and is described as being the “embodiment of the nation”.

In contrast to Saltire’s ancient location and roots, two of Quebec’s offerings to the superhero genre, Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette’s Anglomanand Pierre Fournier’s Capitaine Kebec operate within a distinctly contemporary setting, however they do so with their creators’ tongues stuck firmly in their cheeks. Capitaine Kebec first appeared in the 1970s and whilst it didn’t last more than one single issue he was later resurrected for a short lived revival. A fairly typical, laid back hippy, his costume consists of a too small jumper, a free towel he received upon purchasing some laundry powder and a pair of aviator’s goggles. His nemesis is the wittily named Frogueman who attacks his enemies by shooting a steaming jet of pea soup at them.

Angloman - Shainblum and Morrissette

Angloman was a strip that ran in the Montreal Mirror from 1995 to 1999 and then had two collected books published containing longer stories. Angloman was a thinly veiled satire of the political goings on within the province in the early 1990s based on the premise that if the real events surrounding the referendum were published no one would believe them. Its tagline read

We couldn’t make this place up! DC Comics would reject it in a second! Universal Press Syndicate would laugh at us! Hell, even MAD Magazine would probably slam the door in our faces!.

Angloman himself wears a costume based on Captain America’s and lives in the Fortress of Two Solitudes, a reference not only to Superman but also Hugh MacLennan’s 1943 novel Two Solitudes. Featuring cameos from figures such as Pierrre Elliot Trudeau and Jacques Parizeau, Angloman is hardly sophisticated in its satire but it stands as a fascinating insight into contemporary attitudes towards politics within the province.

Bojoual - Guilemay

Bojoual, created by Quebecois artist J Guilemay, appeared in three albums between 1973 and 1976 and was a wily “Huron-Kebekois” who owed a lot to Asterix both in story and physical appearance. Set simultaneously at the time of the Conquest of New France by the British and in the 1960s and 1970s, the books are thinly veiled attempts to appropriate the style and appearance of Asterix for a Québécois audience.

So why is this of any interest whatsoever when talking about Comics and the Everyday? Well, not only do national superheroes exist as the embodiment of the nation and operate within the everyday protecting the nation from external threats, but I feel it is of particular interest the way in which these figures appeared within both Scottish and Quebecois culture in the months or years prior to the referendums.

By creating and inserting these heroes into everyday culture in anticipation of political change, the debate regarding the sovereignty of these two nations is brought into the cultural field. As Dittmer suggests, these superheroes are a discourse through which their readers gain understanding, and therefore I would suggest that these characters offer discussion about how to conceive of the everyday either before or after these referendums.

Furthermore the manifestations that appear in both of these nations are interesting for their particularities and peculiarities.  Few would have expected either nation to produce a superhero of the likes of Captain America, though the United Kingdom did produce Marvelman and Captain Britain, while Canada does of course have Captain Canuck. However Quebec’s offerings are exclusively comedic and the authors of Saltire have chosen to situate their hero not in the contemporary Scotland but rather in the country during the Roman Empire.

So why these atypical approaches? And how are they of interest when talking about comics and the roles they can play within politics. Jason Dittmer holds that “Canadian attempts at superhero publishing tend to be much more self-consciously nationalist; perhaps as a result of Canadian concern over being subsumed within American culture, the producers always seem to be contrasting the Canadian product with the American” (Dittmer, 2013, p.20).

Within Québécois society it is possible to observe a similar anxieties about cultural incursions from Anglophone Canada and L’Hexagone threatening their own creative output. These tensions are only exacerbated within the world of comics or bande dessinee produced in Quebec as the province lies at the meeting point of three of the great comic book traditions (Franco-Belgian Bande Dessinée, American Superheroes and Undergroung Comix).

Not only is the status of Quebec under threat within Canada but so are its comics books often ignored for more popular (and cheaper) imports from the USA and Europe. The intensity of these threats to Quebec’s identity and culture have not led the province’s artists to create the same kind of ‘self consciously nationalist” character as Canada, but rather to create satirical, subversive figures that seek to reinforce Québécois identity by undermining Canadian, American and European narrative tropes.

In the case of Bojoual in particular, the appropriation of the visual, physical and narrative stylings of Astérix allow not only for Quebec to hazard an attempt at creating its own iconic national figure like France, but also to subvert the influence held over BDQ and particularly the market for BD in Quebec by these classic Franco-Belgian BD. Meanwhile Angloman aped the superhero comics of the United States but with no need for the same level of quality in terms of production or story because their main aim was to be highly satirical.

It would, of course, be possible to argue that Angloman, Capitaine Kebec and Bojoual are not really nationalist superheroes but rather are jokes. However to do so would be to ignore the ways in which each of their creators worked hard to ensure that they drew heavily on the visual and textual conventions of those characters that had inspired them.

Saltire - Ferguson, Julskjaer and Welsh

Saltire on the other hand is consciously distinct from that conception of a nationalist superhero that is typified by Captain America, Captain Canuck etc. Rather we are shown a more basic, primal figure, forged as he supposedly is on the Stone of Destiny. We are told that Saltire embodies the nation and therefore we are led to believe that the true Scotland is ancient and enduring.

While the character of Merlyn/Merlin appears within the Marvel universe and is responsible for empowering Captain Britain, thereby demonstrating earlier examples of mythological influences within nationalist superhero origin stories, Saltire’s origins are not only ancient but the comic is set in a time and place that bears no resemblance to a recognizable Scotland today.

While Bojoual’s Quebec is not contemporary, the confused time frames and presence of cultural markers such as the 1967 Expo in Montreal and the 1976 Olympics allow the reader to situate it within a Quebec that is at least familiar to us. Just as in Quebec in 1980 and 1995, in Scotland questions abound about what this future, independent Scotland will look like. It is of particular note that statements that both the monarchy and the currency will be retained have been made and this only intensifies these questions as voters are forced to ask in what ways an independent Scotland would be significantly different.

By situating Saltire in a more distant past John Ferguson proffers a more radical conception of an independent Scotland, underlining the differences between the rest of the United Kingdom and Scotland. Though it is not offering a realistic vision of the future, it pushes the reader to consider Scotland differently. Just as Dittmer held that Canadian creators were more self conscious in their nationalism than those in the UK or America, so in relation to the UK and Canada are Scotland and Quebec even more self conscious and intent on differentiating between themselves and the politically and culturally dominant nations. Even those elements that are not so supportive of the independence campaigns still seek to promote difference between the nations.

It is key that as discussion about independence and referendums increased within Scotland and Quebec, creators working within the comics industries of each saw fit to create these figures that to a greater or lesser extent seek to embody and reflect their respective nations.

As Scotland stands less than 10 months from the referendum on its future, John Ferguson is making a contribution to the debate on what an independent Scotland will look like, just as the creators of Bojoual, Angloman and Capitaine Kebec offered their own takes on the sovereignty debate in Quebec through their subversion and satire.

I would argue that rather than purely embodying the nation as Ferguson conceives of Saltire[4], these superheroes do perform the function proposed by Dittmer as they provide and provoke discussion or at least imagination through which readers can understand the world and the two possible futures of these nations on the edge of independence.

Notes



[1]Jason Dittmer, Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero, (Temple, Philadelphia, 2013) p.2

[2]John Ferguson, Diamond Steel Comics http://www.diamondsteelcomics.com [December 13th 2013]

[3]Ibid

[4]John Ferguson (w), Tone Julskjaer (p,i), Gary Welsh (p,i), Saltire, (Diamonsteel Comics, Dundee, 2013) p.16

Saltire - Ferguson, Julskjaer and Welsh
Bojoual - Guilemay
Angloman - Shainblum and Morrissette